We've long been cautioned against watching either sausage or laws being made. Neither is a pretty sight. Now we can say the same about journalism. Watching the news being made as we've learned over the course of the last 10 days is not for the faint of heart.
NBC's aviation correspondent, Robert Hager, broke the story that JFK Jr.'s airplane was missing at 8:06 a.m. on Saturday, July 17. Hager is a pro, and his report was succinct. But as the other big broadcast networks and the cable news outlets climbed on board the story, anchors and correspondents from Washington to Atlanta to Boston to Martha's Vineyard started making journalistic sausage in full view of a national audience that numbered somewhere between 20 million and 30 million in the first hours alone.
Trouble is, nowadays there's no time for TV to make good journalism on a developing story of nationwide interest, especially one such as this in which there were simply no hard facts to be had for the first several days. So what viewers saw was journalists carrying out the process of making journalism. Give most of them a C-minus at best. And a few should have been sent back to j-school.
When you don't know what's happening, it's hard to say things that make sense but the airtime must be filled. Thus, the airwaves were full of a sound and fury that signified ... absolutely nothing.
Take Dan Rather, for example. A print-journalist friend of mine was watching CBS at about 11 a.m. Saturday and reports that Rather seemed to lose his composure, launching into a mini-tirade about air safety, and then breaking down as he talked about what JFK Jr. meant to the country. One of Rather's colleagues chimed in, noting the tragedy two years ago when Michael Kennedy was killed in a skiing accident. In an appalling lack of taste, Rather's colleague continued, saying that he had covered that funeral and will never forget the grief of the Kennedy family. "I know that Michael Kennedy meant a lot to them," he said, "but we know that JFK Jr. means so much more."
MSNBC, which covered the story continuously, hacked up its own reportorial furball Sunday night. Beginning at about 8:30, Brian Williams and Dan Abrams kept telling us that a Coast Guard ship had "stopped over something perhaps the missing plane" and "marked a spot with a flare." For a solid hour they milked these two "facts" until 9:30, when a Coast Guard news spokesman said the flare was a drift marker and nothing had been found. The non-story disappeared like a magician's rabbit.
Another friend watched as Jesse Jackson called JFK Jr. "Jo Jo" and heard a reporter refer to JFK Jr.'s "refreshing lack of humility."
And so it went for days, as anchors and reporters tried to fill airtime without having anything to say or any real facts to work with. It was endless pictures of blue water and days of speculation, right up until the burial at sea and the memorial services.
Such is the nature of TV journalism today, when the facts of a story can be summed up in a five-minute newscast, but broadcasters think the nation wants wall-to-wall coverage.
Where is Walter Cronkite when we need him? The answer is that Walter is retired and the business of TV journalism has changed for the worse. Fittingly, when asked for a comment about the tragedy, Cronkite showed what is all too rare in journalism these days: restraint. He declined to comment saying the matter was simply too painful.
But as technological capabilities continue to lead journalism at a pace that humans can't keep up with, it will only get worse. I'll tell you what's scary. In 20 years maybe even less our sons and daughters will think about the '90s as the good old days of broadcast journalism. Like the making of sausage, perhaps that's better left for others to
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